Finding NEO

Experts disagree on whether NASA’s asteroid capture mission is doable, or even worthwhile. And first they have to find a suitable target.

Radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55. At 400 meters in diameter, this one's too big to retrieve. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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Gentry Lee, veteran JPL engineer, said he was intrigued by the mission but thought that NASA’s schedule and cost estimates—the 2018 launch and a cost below $2 billion—were far too optimistic. He pushed NASA to “nail down the cost uncertainty.” The agency could hope for a 2019 launch at best, he said—but only if it dealt honestly with the mission’s very real risks.

Mars Curiosity rover and Arizona State University scientist Jim Bell argued that NASA should not cut other space science missions to fund ARRM, but he hopes the mission could bring together NASA’s robotic and astronaut programs in the service of scientific exploration. Bell took it as a positive sign that the asteroid capture proposal has so far escaped ridicule by pop culture gatekeepers like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

NASA will need just such popular and congressional support if it’s to gain approval for ARRM. Lee observed that NASA must forthrightly answer two fundamental questions: “Can we make it work? Can we make it useful?”  This week’s frank discussions may help NASA realize that the road to the asteroid may be long, winding, and full of ruts.  

Tom Jones is a former astronaut, a space scientist, and a frequent contributor to Air & Space. Read more at

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